For many companies, making progress toward corporatewide goals is a constant struggle. One department’s actions undermine those of another. A solution to a problem causes unanticipated difficulties in other arenas. Staying ahead of the competition seems like an uphill battle.
Robert Fritz, the founder of the field of structural consulting as well as a composer, film director, and author, is convinced that there’s an easier way for organizations to create the future that they envision: by using what he calls “structural dynamics.” In his book The Path of Least Resistance for Managers (Berrett-Koehler, 1999), which is based on the best-selling Corporate Tides, Fritz defines structural dynamics as “the study of how structure works within nature, within people, within personal relationships, and within organizations.” He goes on to say that “organizations are a structural phenomenon as much as anything else, and unless we understand how and why they work as structure, we will not be able to change them in predictable ways” (see “Three Insights”).
Following Less Resistance
Core to structural dynamics is the scientific principle of “the path of least resistance,” that is, that energy moves where it is easiest to go. Fritz states, “Water in a riverbed must follow the path of least resistance, as must electrons through a circuit, as must wind blowing through a canyon, as must weather patterns crossing the planet. As we do, ourselves, as we pass through our lives.” This holds true for organizations as well—actions naturally follow the course that presents the fewest obstacles.
Fritz contends that a path of least resistance itself is neutral—it can lead to either success or failure for a business. But for any enterprise to institute lasting change—whether the launch of a companywide TQM program or the introduction of a new spreadsheet package—it must first be sure that the new strategy is compatible with the current path of least resistance or create a new path. Otherwise, the best-intended and best executed efforts will fall short of expectations, as workers regress to entrenched patterns of behavior.
In addition, the author contends, “successful and unsuccessful organizations both follow a course of least resistance.” But organizations with the right underlying structure follow an advancing path of least resistance. For these businesses, “success builds success.” For companies that are structured to pursue an oscillating path, “success is only transitory . . . a period of advancement is followed by a reversal.”
Fritz focuses the majority of the book on how an organization can redesign its underlying structures to create a new, more productive path of least resistance. This change, in turn, allows the enterprise to break free from oscillating successes and failures and move toward a healthier, advancing pattern of behavior. To make this kind of transformation, Fritz encourages organizations to focus on “the difference between what we want and what we have—our desired state as compared to our actual state.” The organization can then formulate an action plan to close the gap between the two and accomplish the new objective.
- Energy moves along the path of least resistance.
- The underlying structure of anything will determine the path of least resistance.
- We can determine the path of least resistance by creating new structures.
The author theorizes that companies that institute self-organizing management systems based on the principles of chaos and complexity theories will fall into this unproductive pattern of behavior. He states, “they will tend to produce oscillating behavior as local forces gain strength and power only to clash with other local forces.” If instead we align and prioritize our overall objectives, we can transform structural conflict into structural tension—, “the structure that has the right path of least resistance.” In this way, Fritz believes we can make organizational life a little easier to manage.
Janice Molloy is managing editor of THE SYSTEMS THINKER and LEVERAGE: NEWS AND IDEAS FOR THE ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNER.